I felt my fingers tremble just a tiny bit as I typed this sentence last week. Not because of the subject matter. Not because of the point I was trying to make. Because of the “I.” Was that word going to drive home my point, or derail it?
Studies show personally knowing someone who belongs to a minority group increases the likelihood that you will have empathy for that minority. If you have a family member who is gay, you’re less likely to oppose marriage equality. If you know someone with dwarfism well, you’re less likely to see their medical diagnosis whenever you look at them. GLAAD emphasized the political potential for all this in a brilliant meme last fall. Urging LGBT individuals to talk openly about their partners and love lives at the dinner table with the same frequency as their straight family members, they called it, “I’m Letting Aunt Betty Feel Awkward This Thanksgiving.”
Truly caring for someone with a different perspective often—though, sadly, not always—inspires us to try to understand their perspective and this enhances our own. Letting others know that They are not so different from Us because we know and care deeply about many of Them can effectively break down barriers. And, when discussing social injustice, it’s always best to ask someone with personal experience, lest we unwittingly make erroneous assumptions. But, of course, just having friends who belong to minority groups doesn’t solve everything.
As I wrote about knowing men and trans people who wear dresses to elucidate that They are actually Us, I cringed at the idea of flaunting my loved ones’ Otherness for the purposes of my blog. By inserting myself into the statement, there was a risk that some would think I was trying to prove my open-mindedness. I’ve bragged like that in the past, especially when I was an egocentric teen. (You know, back when you practiced writing your name over and over?) And my own Otherness has been flaunted a few times by friends and acquaintances seeking attention for their open-mindedness. It’s a serious problem in the social justice movements.
In Black Like Me, the author tells the story of a New Yorker he encounters who has come to the South to “observe” the plight of the black citizens. “You people are my brothers,” the New Yorker insists. “It’s people like me that are your only hope. How do you expect me to observe if you won’t talk to me?” Although the man’s opposition to segregation was morally correct, his overt self-regard and patronizing disgust at his brothers’ “ingratitude” makes it one of the most cringe-inducing scenes in the book.
In Baratunde Thurston’s fantastic memoir, How To Be Black (just out this year), the author asks writers and activists about white people’s fear of being called racist. damali ayo, the author of How To Rent A Negro and Obamistan! Land Without Racism, says it best:
It shows our values as a culture when somebody says, “I don’t want to be a called a racist.” Really what they’re saying is, “I want you to like me. I don’t want to not be liked. I want to still be okay with you.” They don’t mean, “What I really want is to know and understand experiences of people of color…” That would be great.
And so, it just shows that, as I always have said, we are operating at this third-grade level of race relations. And it’s that third-grader that goes, “Please like me, do please like me,” versus “Can I understand?”
We all want to be liked and we all want to do the right thing. But the the third-grader mindset can’t help but focus more on the former. It is evident in common phrases like:
“We were the only white people there!”
“I’ve always wanted a gay friend!”
“I think I’m [bisexual/learning disabled], too, because I [kissed a girl once/have difficulty concentrating]!”
“I’m not prejudiced! I have so many [nonwhite/foreign/LGBT/disabled] friends!”
Of course, in certain contexts and worded differently, these statements would not be offensive. What makes them offensive is the need to let others know all about us, the belief that our support for equality deserves praise, the patronizing (and unjust) view that minorities should be grateful for our lack of prejudice. We can note that we were the only white people in a group in order to spark a dialogue about social segregation, or we can flaunt the experience like a medal from the Liberal Olympics. We can worry that having a homogeneous circle of friends will limit our perspective, or we can believe that racking up as many minority friends as we can is proof of our expertise on all minority issues. We can try to empathize with someone labeled “different” because of their sexuality or biology in order to remove stigmas and barriers, or we can try to seek the attention they are getting for ourselves. We can respond to accusations that we have offended by trying to understand why someone would be hurt, or we can respond by listing our liberal credentials.
This depends primarily on the individual. Someone who likes to brag about their open-mindedness usually brags about most things they do. This personality trait seems to be particularly common among educated elites—parodied so well at Stuff White People Like—because elite education frequently fosters competitiveness. (Taking the time to count your degrees, count the books you own, count the minority friends you have…) Competitiveness is anathema to selflessness. But while bragging about the number of books we own is silly because we’re obviously missing the point of reading, bragging about the number of minority friends we have is grave because we’re missing the point of human rights.
Do we donate to charity privately because it makes us feel better to spend the money on someone else? Or do we hope that others will notice and admire our sacrifice? Then again, drawing attention to the work we’re doing is usually important if we want to advertise the cause and urge others to join. That’s where things get murky.
A while back, within a few months of each other, two friends stood up to ableism and told me about it after the fact. A guyfriend came fuming to me about his teacher who had used the word “midget” and who had then insisted, despite my guyfriend’s protests, that it wasn’t offensive at all. A girlfriend told me that a mutual acquaintance had said something crass about my dwarfism and that she had told him to back off repeatedly because she wouldn’t tolerate such bigotry in her presence. The first friend focused his story on the offender’s behavior. The second focused her story on her heroic defense. People who want to understand the problem more than anything tend to focus their feelings on the injustice they encountered. People who want to be liked more than anything tend to focus their feelings on their performance.
This shouldn’t ever deter anyone from working for equality and social justice, from celebrating diversity or from spreading awareness. Open minds should always be highly valued. But to paraphrase the recent words of the Crunk Feminist Collective, by not being racist—or sexist or homophobic or lookist or ableist or transphobic—we’re not doing anything special. We’re doing what we’re supposed to do.